A school bus company in rural Georgia is turning to electric vehicles

Imagine children on their way to school, an early morning group with backpacks, sports equipment and lunch boxes waiting at the side of the road as the big yellow school bus pulls up with a roar.

But in school districts across the country, increasingly, the sound of the bus is the artificial hum of an electric vehicle.

The transition to electric school buses is being funded by a $5 billion federal grant intended to help fight air pollution and climate change by helping school districts purchase low-emission and zero-emission buses.

Many of these new, quieter, cleaner school buses are being built in Georgia by 95-year-old Blue Bird Corp. based in Macon at their facility in the nearby town of Fort Valley.

“These are the batteries here,” said Antonio Bryant, a trainer at the EV factory.

“Pretty much everyone that comes through here, I’m in the process of training them a bit,” he said.

According to Britton Smith, Blue Bird’s senior vice president of electrification and chief strategy officer, the company is increasingly focusing on electric buses. Currently, about 6% of the company’s volume is electric, but he expects that share to grow significantly.

“The dynamic has changed,” Smith said. This is thanks to public funds dedicated to tackling climate change and air pollution.

Smith said Blue Bird will sell about $1 billion worth of electric school buses as the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill brings in $5 billion.

“The interesting thing is that we’re seeing orders from states that you wouldn’t expect,” he said. Like Kentucky, Utah and Nevada.

Blue Bird currently has the capacity to produce four electric buses per day. However, the company is expanding a facility to be able to build up to 20 units per day by the end of this year.

“It’s a pretty exciting time in our history for us,” Smith said.

More than 1,000 people work at the Blue Bird facility in Fort Valley, Georgia. About 6% of volume is electric, but the company expects that share to grow. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Changes may also be imminent for workers. They recently voted to form a union, demanding better pay, better work-life balance and safer working conditions. The United Steelworkers say it’s only fair that workers do so as the company benefits from federal incentives.

It’s also notable that Blue Bird is profitable with electric buses, said Mike Shlisky, a senior research analyst at DA Davidson who specializes in the EV sector.

“There’s a lot of flash and a lot of new companies that nobody’s heard of before and a lot of fund raising and stuff like that,” he said. “But the company that’s actually doing as well as, if not better than, everyone else is Blue Bird.”

Blue Bird coach Antonio Bryant said he could see his skills on the streets. His father works in a rural Georgia school system and recently told him his district is getting an electric bus from his factory.

“I’m doing this so my hometown can have one that I actually built,” he said.

And what if his father gets to drive one of his buses? Bryant said that was kinda cool.

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